The intimacy of poetry, or, On First Attending a Poetry Event

Last Wednesday evening I was in the audience at two events in London. The first one was an IHR seminar where Jane Kershaw was talking on Viking brooches found in England (which I may blog about later, if I get organised). The second was a women’s poetry session called Loose Muse, at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. As well as having to remember in which event to clap, and in which one to make notes for future reference, this also got me thinking about the different kinds of relationship possible between the writer/performer and the audience (especially since both events included time for questions and answers).

What I was most struck about was the greater intimacy and personal revelation of the poetry reading. An academic seminar in history, or even a journal article, will often ‘leak’ at least some of the author’s personality and wider political/social views, even if they don’t intend it to. But in many of the poems and discussions of them I heard that night, self-revelation was part of the point: I learnt about the physical and mental health, the personal circumstances and worries of people I’d never met before. One obvious answer is to put this down to a contrast of genres, but that’s hard to reconcile with the third data point of that evening, the book I was carrying round with me in my bag. Another piece of ‘performance poetry’ : Beowulf. Poetry doesn’t have to be intimate – one of the problems in dating Beowulf is how few clues we get about the author, and his (probably) times.

So what is the reason for the rise of intimate poetry, revelatory poetry – if there has been a rise? It’s tempting at this point to start bringing gender into it. Are women more prone to self-revelation? But an IHR seminar doesn’t, to me, seem ‘male’ rather than ‘female’, especially when there’s a female speaker and women playing a prominent role in the discussion afterwards (I did have the shuddering thought of one of the more formidable historians of my acquaintance, such as Susan Reynolds, at a poetry Q and A, asking: “But what do you mean by your use of ‘Charon’ in your last line?”). And one of the poems read, at least, seemed closer to the Beowulf model, a description of a merman walking on land for the first time.

I think there has been a historical change in poetry, but it’s hard to pin down. There is a very long tradition of ‘confessional’ poetry, personal poetry (back to Ovid and before), and the persona created is always artificial to some extent: the ‘I’ is always a character. But I think, nowadays, there is more emphasis on the truth of poetry, on it being about something that really happened, and happened to the person telling it. One writer, whose son was serving as a soldier in Afghanistan, felt it necessary to say that an event she described had happened, not to her, but to other mothers. Perhaps what has changed is not simply the willingness of poets to expose themselves, but the demand of audiences that they do so.

From my very limited knowledge of the history of poetry, I would connect this to the Romantics (and thus also demonstrate that it’s not simply a gendered phenomenon). Wouldn’t it somehow negate some of the impact of John Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer if you knew that he’d never actually read that work? Similarly, Wordsworth’s claim that ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ makes authenticity into the key. Such authenticity doesn’t necessarily have to be expressed via intimate details of the poet’s life – it can be displaced onto clearly fictional characters – but it did perhaps give self-revelatory poems a significance that they didn’t have before. But I’m conscious once again of how little I know about what it’s like to experience hearing poetry (this was the first event intended for adults I can remember going to). I’d be interested to hear more from those who know more about the history of poetry and its current state.


6 thoughts on “The intimacy of poetry, or, On First Attending a Poetry Event

  1. I’m rather sorry now that I didn’t have time to read any of the persona or more fictionalized poems that I’d bookmarked; it might have given you some more contrast. Somehow, the first reader set the tone for the evening as intensely personal – and, given that a lot of my own work is intensely personal, that seemed like a logical road to follow. I’d agree that your perception regarding emphasis on the “truth” of poetry is broadly true: although I wouldn’t go so far as to say poetry has become essentially an autobiographical exercise across the board, readers of modern poetry do seem drawn to the aspect of voyeurism, the chance to be a tourist in someone else’s head and/or heart.


    • I’m a bit uncertain what to respond to this, because as a social/cultural historian, I’m something like a professional voyeur – I spend my life trying to get into other people’s heads, although they are at least dead first. But I wonder whether part of the reason for this personal emphasis in poetry now is also that it is something that other artistic forms can’t do as well, whereas many other genres of poetry now have other media rivalries. How many people, for example, would now choose a poem about daffodils in the Lake District in preference to a HD video of them, or the chance to go yourself to see them (which is now far more feasible for most people than in the eighteenth century)? Similarly, I suspect the audiences in the meadhalls who listened to Beowulf might well have found a war movie (or even a computer game) more enthralling, more immersive, if they had had the chance. Whereas the inner space of people can often still be experienced most vividly by words. It might also explain the continued popularity of fantasy/SF poetry and books, another realm which film and TV can’t always present as effectively, or as movingly.


  2. I also find it quite difficult these days to define what ‘poetry’ is! Is it just the spontaneous overflow etc etc or is it something more than that?

    My own view is that poetry – and maybe all art – does need to be ‘truthful’ in some way or it does not resonate with hearers and readers, although I think I would locate this in the choice of words and phrases that most accurately and therefore ‘honestly’ express what is going on in the poet’s mind.

    It is not just about the mind though, is it – very hard to know what the right word is for the ‘place’ from which poetry arises – the psyche?


    • I think I would now say that poetry is not a genre, but a style of writing. Now that so much poetry is not marked either by its formal characteristics (rhythm/rhyme) or its subject matter, what distinguishes it, I think, is its compact form, and its focus on language, and a few precsie images. It was a very interesting contrast at the reading, listening to the fragmented bittiness of brief effects, single memorable lines or images, to the seminar earlier. Beacuse in a seminar paper, you’re always trying as a listener to grasp the wider structure, architecture of the whole paper and its argument – it’s a line, where poetry is sometimes more a series of dots, which you’re left to join together.


  3. Interesting post.

    Poetry for me is expressing oneself, in a form or style or free flowing like “urban poetry”. In either way, it is always personal and revealing of the writer.


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